Thirteen villagers in Battambang province died Tuesday when the tractor-trailer they were traveling in triggered a pair of anti-tank landmines, local officials said yesterday, the deadliest single blast authorities could recall in recent years.
Another man injured by the same blast in Banan district remained in critical condition as of yesterday afternoon.
The accident comes among expectations that 2010 will see the first annual rise in total mine and unexploded ordnance casualties since 2004.
“It is the first time that our villagers in Banan have been killed by an anti-tank mine explosion,” district governor Oung Bunchoy said. “We are very sorry for their relatives.”
The group, including a 1-year-old girl, were passing over a well-traveled dirt road through Cheng Meanchey commune after a day’s work on their nearby farms, according to commune chief Lon Pak. He said two other tractors had just passed over the same spot before the third triggered the stacked mines.
He said the injured driver, Rom Rein, lost his wife and daughter in the blast and remained in critical condition at the provincial hospital.
Mr Pak added that one of the bodies was thrown so far by the explosion that rescue workers scouring the scene in the dark did not find the remains until the next day. He suspected the mines were set off when the weight of the packed trailer pushed down on a wooden pole running from the surface of the road to the buried mines, a common trigger once used by Khmer Rouge guerillas, he said.
According to Mr Pak, the area was the site of a Khmer Rouge base until 1993. The province itself is one of the most heavily mined in the country and accounted for the most mine and UXO victims in 2009.
Tuesday’s blast alone killed more people than killed or injured by mines and UXO in all of October.
“I think [this year] will be much higher that in 2009,” said Chhiv Lim, project manager at the Cambodian Mine Victim Information System, the government’s database of nationwide mine and UXO casualty figures. Year-on-year figures to the end of October were already up 13 percent.
Officials at the Cambodian Mine Action Center, the government’s demining arm, could not be reached yesterday, but recently blamed the rising casualty rate on fewer but larger blasts at the hands of more anti-tank mines.
Thanks to the high metal content of the old anti-tank mines laid by the Khmer Rouge, “they’re actually the easiest mines to find,” said Cameron Imber, Cambodian program manager for the HALO Trust, an independent demining group active in the western provinces.
“They’re easily found up to 1 meter deep. The problem we’ve got is that they’re sporadically placed,” he said, making it impractical to sweep for them as with a field of smaller anti-personnel mines.
While far deadlier than the anti-personnel mines, he said, they are also far fewer in number. Of the 17,500 mines the group has cleared this year through October, only 181 were anti-tank mines.
Like CMAC and the country’s independent deminers, HALO is facing diminishing donor funding, a trend they attribute to both the global economic downturn and simple fatigue.
Since 2008, Mr Imber said, HALO’s funds have shrunk by a third, forcing the group to cut 10 staff members. He expected the group’s circumstances only to worsen next year.
Despite their efforts, landmines still litter some 650 square km of the country by the government’s best, and admittedly incomplete, figures.
“If we want to clear all the landmines in Cambodia, we maybe need 100 more years if funding is like this,” said Leng Sochea, deputy secretary-general at the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority.
Just to meet the government’s new 10-year plan to clear only the most heavily affected and critical areas will take at least $30 million a year. Mr Sochea conceded that the roughly $26 million donors pledged this year—$2 million less than the year before—was heading in the wrong direction.
Donors “have been supporting us since 1992, so sometimes they get tired,” he said. “They need patience.”